Stanley Kubrick’s 1987 Vietnam War film, Full Metal Jacket, features one of the most shocking transitions in all of cinema. We’ve just witnessed a living nightmare: a Marine recruit, Private Pyle (Vincent D’Onofrio), has murdered his abusive drill instructor (R. Lee Ermey) before turning his rifle on himself on the training grounds at Parris Island. Blood-spattered bathroom tiles, fade to black.
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And then…Nancy Sinatra? We are stunned to hear the unforgettable shiver-inducing opening notes of “These Boots are Made for Walkin’,” Sinatra’s 1966 chart-topper. Chuck Berghofer’s bassline sounds like a psychedelic cowgirl riding double-time into town on a hallucinated horse for a big showdown with her lover. Lee Hazelwood wrote “Boots” just prior to the new classification of LSD as an illegal drug. But why this song in this film?
In Full Metal Jacket, Sinatra’s song of sexual jealousy and women’s revenge continues to play as we see a Vietnamese sex worker (Papillon Soo Soo) saunter in heels and leather mini-skirt towards a pair of American soldiers, Joker (Matthew Modine) and Rafterman (Kevyn Major Howard), a reporter and a cameraman for Stars and Stripes, respectively, sitting at an outdoor cafe in Da Nang. This collage of sight and sound – the film constantly shifts, sometimes in the blink of an eye, between death and sex – is bloodchilling and cinematically astonishing in its ability to disturb.
Part of the story here involves historical realism, part of it relates to cinematic influence, and yet another aspect surely involves the themes of the song itself. Evoking the Vietnam War with reference to popular music, Kubrick recognized that few other songs were so closely associated with the conflict than “Boots.” Sinatra had performed in USO tours for the troops in 1967, and enthralled soldiers had adopted the song as an anthem. A Google Image Search for “Nancy Sinatra Vietnam” turns up a photo of the singer in a bikini sitting on a pile of boots, suggesting the limits of using the song in feminist hagiography.
Kubrick had surely studied Pierre Schoendoeffer’s 1966 wartime documentary The Anderson Platoon, in which an Armed Forces Radio DJ flicks on “Boots” from a reel-to-reel tape and, in the original French version of the film, the song continues playing over footage of drafted grunts slogging through Vietnamese bogs and rivers in soaked boots. Surely there’s an element of gender-bending in Schoendoeffer’s depiction of American conscripts as both the men “a-messin’ where you shouldn’t been a-messin’” in Vietnam as well as the victims of a government bent on “lyin’ when your oughta be truthin’.” Who was being exploited and who was doing the exploitation?
Returning to the cafe scene in which the Vietnamese sex worker propositions Joker and Rafterman in Full Metal Jacket, there’s a sense in which the song provides a foreboding of things that happen later in the film. While they banter about prices for sexual favors and the woman poses for a photo with Joker, a Vietnamese guy sneaks up on Rafterman and steals his camera, exiting the scene with a kung-fu routine to scare off the occupying soldiers. Afterwards, Rafterman moans about how the ungrateful Vietnamese are rejecting American military “help” with their national problems (as he sees it). Joker dismisses the incident as “just business,” but we cannot help but remember the song’s opening lyrics about how “You say you’ve got something for me / Something you call love, but confess.” The soldiers’ light-hearted attitude toward their unabashed sex tourism, combined with the song, might provide a subtle but disturbing analogy for the war: What the generals and politicians “call love” is viewed by many Vietnamese as exploitation, and they’re tired of being stepped on by colonial powers. The “Boots” scene provides the first hint in Full Metal Jacket that the Americans will lose more than their cameras in this war. By the end of the war, the shoe will be on the other foot.
Weapons are continually sexualized by the characters in Full Metal Jacket (“This is my rifle,” the Marine recruits are forced to repeat endlessly, “there are many like it, but this one is mine”). Training for this war, for Kubrick, involves the deliberate replacement of sex with dehumanizing violence. Later in the film, in a thematic reprise of the earlier scene at the street cafe, a pimp brings another prostitute directly to the battlefield after combat. Finally, at the film’s crisis point, the soldiers are cut down by a very young woman sniper in an extended sequence that reverses audience expectations of what a war film offers its viewers.
The setting is not a stereotypical Vietnamese jungle combat scene, but instead features the ruined buildings of Hue, the urban setting of one of the most difficult battles of the war. (Apparently the Hue sequence featuring the sniper was filmed in Beckton, London.) The enemy portrayed here is not an ambushing horde of Communist soldiers but rather a lone girl who proves to be the equal of a ten men on the battlefield. We are led to assume that she is motivated by a furious revenge that reveals everything one needs to know about why America is bound to lose this war. It is equally difficult not to see her in terms of a subversive counterpoint to the way Vietnamese women are treated in the rest of the film. In the terms of Sinatra’s song, she has found the matches and lit the fire. Kubrick wants us to bear witness to violence analytically – not necessarily unfeelingly but primarily intellectually. We’re not left in tears but rather frozen in horror, as in so many of his other films.
When the wounded enemy sniper requests, in English, to be shot in order to end her misery, Joker becomes “hardcore” in the eyes of his fellow soldiers by carrying out her orders. The contradictions of his situation – what he had called “the duality of man” earlier in the film – have been piling up. He has transformed from a witness of killing at Parris Island, into a journalist who spins fake news for Stars and Stripes, and, finally, into a killer himself, by the end of the film. The deaths of Private Pyle and the female sniper bookend the two halves of the film, forcing the viewer to ask why the film is structured in these two carefully balanced parts. The connective tissue between the first and second sections of Full Metal Jacket is Nancy Sinatra’s “Boots,” in which the scorned woman does not walk out on her cheating lover, but rather walks all over him, with its lyrics suggesting an act of arson and some dancing on his grave. “Are you ready, boots?”
Full Metal Jacket arguably helped to pioneer the so-called “mix-tape movie” style, in which extended musical interludes provide much of a film’s total sensibility. In addition to “Boots,” Kubrick deploys the 1964 Dixie Cups’ version of “Chapel of Love” as an ironic prelude to the Tet Offensive, a celebration that turns not into a wedding but a bloodbath. The curtain closes with The Rolling Stones’ “Paint It Black.” Mick Jagger sings about his own personal “darkness” in a way that Kubrick obviously links to Joker’s odyssey through a war from which it will be so notoriously difficult to come home: “I look inside myself and see my heart is black.”
Released within a few months of one another in 1966, “Paint it Black” and “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’” weave together the middle and the ending of Full Metal Jacket. But the film’s timeline clearly places its narrative the following year, just after the utopian illusions of the Summer of Love faded into the violence of Tet, to be followed in relatively short order by the political assassinations and riots of 1968 back in the USA. The musical timing in the film is slightly askew – Billboard’s #1 song during the Battle of Hue was actually The Lemon Pipers’ “Green Tambourine” – but nevertheless the overall effect doesn’t feel totally anachronistic. Instead, it’s the violence of the Stones and Sinatra songs, and their shared insistence on the disturbing proximity of sex, death, and misogyny, that feels most Kubrickian. Working in tandem, sound and sight in Full Metal Jacket capture the most disturbing contradictions of the 1960s, as the sexual revolution unfolded against a chaotic backdrop of violence and war.
J. M. Tyree is the Nonfiction Editor of New England Review and Distinguished Visiting Professor at VCUarts. His books include Vanishing Streets and Our Secret Life in the Movies (co-authored with Michael McGriff), an NPR Best Book of 2014.